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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Exit Interviews: What They Are And What They Could Be




When people leave a company, either voluntarily or not, all companies should conduct an exit interview.  The purpose of that interview should be educational and constructive on the part of the company.  It is a chance for an employee to give unfettered and objective feedback on the nature of the company and the things that caused the person to leave.

Unfortunately, many companies, especially ad agencies, miss this opportunity to learn and correct.  Many exit interviews are poorly conducted, few go into enough depth and, even when good information is gathered, no action is taken about what is learned. 

Hearing bad news can be difficult. And in many companies, there is no real mechanism to report the information learned from a departing employee.  Most exit interviews are, at best, perfunctory. In talking to my friends in human resources, they tell me that the principle reason people tell them they are leaving is for money, title or other kinds of advancement. That information is often as far as the exit interview goes; but these  answers only touch the surface and are rarely what actually drove the person to leave.

Recruiters tend to speak to employees who are actively looking or who have recently left a company.  The things they tell us are not necessarily the things they tell the company, especially during exit interviews..  Why?  Often, the departing employee feels disconnected and believes that the company doesn’t really care.  As a result, the employee feels powerless to affect change and rather than leave on a negative note, they simply choose to give simplistic answers.  This is often true of very senior executives as well. Their sense is that the company really doesn’t want to know or act upon its real issues.  And, besides, they tell me, the interviewer rarely probes deeper during an exit interview than a few perfunctory questions.  Most people tell me that their exit interviews, if at all, only last about ten to fifteen minutes and cover the basics like where they are going, for what title and what salary. One departing employee told me that the thing the person who interviewed them really wanted to know was whether there was an executive recruiter involved and who he or she was. Like it really matters.  In some ways, all of this information is none of the company's business.

There is a missed opportunity in poor exit interviews.

Most companies, certainly ad agencies, rarely probe to find out what they could have done better, how they could improve their culture, working environment or processes.  And even if they do ask about these things, the responses rarely get passed to senior management.  They may be written up, but are placed somewhere in a file drawer.

Given the high cost of employee turnover, management should be apprised of the information learned during exit interviews.  It should be analyzed and amalgamated over time. Sometimes, senior management is totally unaware of employee perceptions of the culture and style of the company. They may not even be aware of bad managers.  The information learned during exit interviews could be useful and might even lower turnover if it is properly analyzed and acted upon. 

All too often, I speak with senior management people who brag about their Friday afternoon open bar and they honestly believe that the institution of this very nice perk is the answer to an unhappy culture.  (The open bar or well stocked cafeteria are niceties, but do not compensate for more serious problems.)  

We know that the real reason why people leave companies has little to do with money, but the inability to get a proper salary increase can go a long way towards driving an employee away.  Ad agencies are always having wage freezes, which most employees understand can be thawed if they get a competitive job offer; unfortunately, more often than not, once an employee gets another offer, they become committed to leaving.

But mostly, people leave for reasons of environment, stimulation and career path advancement.  And these are things which should be discovered, probed and reported as a result of an exit interview. Employees who are recognized and feel empowered and valued don’t leave. 

And employees who go through exit interviews and do not tell the absolute truth as they perceive it are doing both themselves and their former company a disservice. 

Exit interviews can be a very powerful tool if used properly.

10 comments:

  1. I have always put 'burn no bridges' at the top of my list when leaving a company, having an employee leave my employ, or when giving advice to mentees. That really means mouthing niceties but not telling the truth which can come back to bite you. I understand the company has a lot to gain,but what can the employee gain or lose by being honest?

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    1. Rachel, it all depends on who you are talking to and the degree of trust a departing employee feels. There are tactful ways of telling the truth. Years ago there was a screamer at an agency who caused many of his reports to leave. Believe it or not, no one talked about it. Then someone finally told a very professional HR person and the agency actually paid for the screamer to get therapy - and it worked.

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  2. I agree with you that companies should find a way to a. get better info and b. actually use it. But in an industry this small, chances are you'll work with people again and again, and I'd bet a lot of people don't feel super comfortable being very candid about the real issues that led to their decision to leave. It's tricky.

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    1. Neil, see my response to Rachel, above. However, I am sure there are tactful ways of telling the truth. However, I know you speak the truth and I have been there. I once had a client who punched me (in the arm, but nevertheless, a real punch), and the president of the agency was standing there and said and did nothing; but actually got mad at me when I walked out.. When I left the agency about a month later, I told the HR manager that I could no longer work for that man. She told me that she couldn't possibly tell the president. C'est la vie.

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  3. The following is an email sent to me from a really great advertising HR Director (yes, there are a few I have met). I quote it in its entirety:

    "This is interesting but not totally unexpected for people in advertising. As we have discussed the business has an inherent aura of insecurity. And there is some truth to the "small industry" comment. But exit interviews are supposedly confidential and if done properly the results are fed back to the appropriate people in a proper manner. Again, HR capabilities are not the strength of advertising so there are many opportunities for pitfalls. I would encourage you to revisit the issue with the message that one can be honest and get the information across in subtle and polite ways. Exit interviews are valuable and it is helpful for the exiting employee to be honest in a productive way and helpful when the agency handles the information appropriately."

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  4. I have to agree with Rachel. An employee has absolutely nothing to gain and plenty to lose (small industry) by offering even constructive criticism to the company he or she is leaving. I've worked for companies where management insisted they wanted candid feedback from employees (I don't mean exit interviews) but it was empty lip service. Those that did so were branded 'negative' or 'complainers.'

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  5. Agreed. I have yet to meet anyone who has heard less than favorable commentary from a departing iemployee and didn't dismiss it as "sour grapes."

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    1. @Anon: And therein lies the problem. I agree with your assessment. It is a lost opportunity for companies.

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  6. I also agree with Rachel. People end up occasionally going back to an agency they worked at before, or working with people they used to work with elsewhere. It is very difficult to find a tactful way to detail issues without sounding like a complainer, and not every HR person can be trusted not to throw you under the bus afterwards. Yes, egregious things like screaming, lying, allowing you to be punched can likely be communicated without negative backlash down the road, but not much else. And given how small the industry truly is, it's not a risk most of us are comfortable taking, even at a senior level.

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    1. @Anon: I hear you. However, since everyone who resigns knows that there will be an exit interview, you should prepare so that you can give positive and helpful feedback. Negative things can be said tactfully and in such a manner as to be heard without damaging your reputation or your future. What the company does with that information is up to them.

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I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

 
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